CHAPTER EIGHT: Philosophy of Science

Science has become such a given in our modern experience that it is hard to imagine a time when it was not the dominant way of viewing the world. Surprisingly, though, science, as we know it today, really only began to emerge in the 16th century. Before that, the dominant worldview was that of religion. Gradually, however, what philosophers like Bacon, Descartes, and Newton called Natural Philosophy—the study of what we can learn from nature—replaced the supernaturalism of the medieval worldview. This had profound consequences for both science and religion.

But, just what do we mean by “science.” In this chapter, we’ll explore how science serves as an epistemology (a way to knowledge) and as a metaphysic (a description of reality). However, we will also look deeply at whether or not science gets us to either of those aims.

But first, consider this thought puzzle from Hakob Barseghyan.

Imagine that you are not reading this textbook. Imagine instead that you are lying on your back on some soft grass on a warm summer night, far from city lights, staring into the vast, dark night sky. As you continue to gaze at the stars, you would likely notice that over the course of hours, they all slowly move – in unison – in the same direction. From the Northern Hemisphere, you will always see the constellation Canis Major near Orion, or the constellation of the Celestial Bear flanked by its seven hunters, but all of them will seem to rotate around Polaris, the North Star.

If you are incredibly perceptive, however, you may notice that not all points of light in the night sky move together. Some of them follow their own path, wandering through the sky with the stars as a backdrop. The ancient Greeks called them asteres planetai, meaning wandering stars, which is where we get the word planet from. If you were to carefully track the path of a planet over the course of a few nights, you would realize that – even though its movement is different from that of the stars – it is far from random. It follows a certain path through the night sky. Indeed, while different planets follow different paths, you could begin to notice similarities between the motions of all the planets as they wander through the heavens. Observed from the Earth, they all appear to move in an eastward direction, and their paths are roughly on the same plane.

But why? What kind of explanation could we give for why planets’ paths differ from those of the stars? Why do planets seem to behave in very similar ways to one another? What are the best scientific theories we have to explain planetary motion?

(Barseghyan, Ch. 1, in Introduction to History and Philosophy of Science by Barseghyan, Hakob; Overgaard, Nicholas; and Rupik, Gregory, CC4.0)



Imagine you had a friend who was convinced that these wandering stars are actually angels carrying messages from God. (This is perhaps not as farfetched as we might think, given that the ancient Romans named the planets after their gods). What kinds of arguments would you make to correct your friend’s view? Upon what principles would your argument stand? How would you proceed to demonstrate that these were not supernatural beings but instead natural objects?

Most of us would appeal to science. Science, like philosophy, prefers to offer natural rather than supernatural explanations for phenomena. These explanations begin with clear observations and then proceed to experiments and theories to support these explanations. But what is science? What distinguishes science from other ways of knowing? Does science give us a better way of understanding the universe than, say, religion? Does it give us a picture of the way things really are? Or merely a language for describing our experiences? Is it possible that science itself might one day be seen as a form of backward thinking?  How can we be sure science can be trusted? These are the kinds of questions the philosophy of science asks.


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PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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